If you’re taking the extra time and effort to bake and cook for family and friends for the holidays, you’ll want to use high-quality ingredients for best results.
“You cannot expect first-rate cookies using second-rate ingredients. Be sure the ingredients are fresh and high quality,” advises Vicki Hayman, nutrition and food safety educator for the University of Wyoming Extension Service.
Here are a few suggestions on choosing and using quality ingredients.
Always use butter and pure extracts, especially in holiday cookies. Butter works very well for cut-out cookies because the chilled dough will be firmer and much easier to roll out.
If using salted butter, only use half the amount of salt called for in the recipe.
“Make sure butter is at room temperature, so it will cream properly with the sugar,” Hayman says.
“Quickly soften cold butter by shredding the amount needed on the large holes of a grater.
“Room temperature butter should be pliable enough that a finger can leave a mark in it. Softened butter will leave a deep indentation and still be firm enough to pick up.
“Soft butter will be too soft to pick up. Do not try to microwave the butter, as it will end up too soft.”
Pure vanilla extract has a delicious flavor that is worth extra money. Imitation vanilla lacks that special flavor and can be bitter or have an aftertaste.
When stored in a cool, dark place, vanilla extract will keep for one year.
Check expiration dates of baking powder and baking soda and replace them if they have expired.
You can test baking powder and baking soda to see if they are still active.
For baking powder, add two teaspoons to one-half cup of hot water and look for tiny bubbles.
Baking soda is used in products containing acids, such as buttermilk, honey and brown sugar. Add one-quarter teaspoon baking soda to two teaspoons vinegar to test activity.
If you bought spices last year for holiday baking, you’ll likely want to replace them. Buy fresh large-size eggs for baking and add them one at a time, thoroughly beating in before the next one is added.
“Sugars with a finer granulation promote more spread. Powdered sugar, when it contains cornstarch, prevents spread in cookies,” says Hayman.
Light brown sugar and dark brown sugar contain a little molasses and can be used interchangeably, but dark brown sugar has a stronger flavor. To measure, firmly pack brown sugar into a dry measuring cup.
Whole milk is best for baking because it has the highest amount of fat, but reduced-fat and skim milk can be substituted. However, use whole milk in puddings and pie fillings, custards and pastry cream. Use high-quality cream cheese in baking for smooth texture. Beat cream cheese until it’s smooth and creamy before adding other ingredients or it will remain lumpy.
“Smell and taste nuts before using because oils in nuts become rancid,” says Hayman. “Add nuts to the batter last so they remain crisp. Store nuts in a freezer for best results.”